35 Years Ago: Funkadelic Releases ‘Uncle Jam Wants You’
In the late ’70s, George Clinton and Funkadelic were on a mission to rescue dance music “from the blahs.” After successfully putting out ‘One Nation Under a Groove’ in September 1978 (resulting in the group’s biggest-selling album and a No. 1 R&B hit), the band sought to increase its empire. In September of 1979, they started recruiting with ‘Uncle Jam Wants You.’
Like most Funkadelic albums, the group's 11th album was wrapped up in a loose concept: George “Uncle Jam” Clinton was building the funkiest of armies in order to storm the discos. The album cover played up the idea, with Clinton posed like Black Panther Huey Newton -- only with platform boots.
Side two of the album hewed close to the martial concept, with a “thrill instructor” leading inductees through “groove maneuvers” that incorporated both the familiar war anthems 'Reveille' and 'When Johnny Comes Marching Home' into extended jams. Meanwhile, Side one was dedicated to the front lines of the dance music war, from disco denizens lovingly termed “freaks” (‘Freak of the Week’) to a woman who entices others by doing a dance called the freak (‘(Not Just) Knee Deep’).
That last song became Funkadelic’s second No. 1 R&B hit, albeit in a version that was edited down from the 15-minute epic found on the LP. With its pulsating bass holding down the low end, laser beam keyboards slicing through the middle and sing-along “Whoa-oh-oh-ohs” wafting above, ‘(Not Just) Knee Deep’ ranks among Clinton’s finest floor-fillers. It also shows Funkadelic midway through the band’s evolution from purveyors of psychedelic funk-rock (note the guitar workout halfway in) to electronically warped dance music (listen for the modulated vocals).
Yet, the exceptional creativity found throughout ‘(Not Just) Knee Deep’ almost didn’t even make it into the studio. Concerned that the tune was in 3/4 time, “Uncle Jam” was uncertain that the song would be danceable. It wasn’t until keyboardist Walter “Junie” Morrison worked up a demo that Clinton was convinced it was not only a worthy addition to this Funkadelic album, but also the obvious lead single.
‘(Not Just) Knee Deep’ wouldn’t just turn out to be a signature jam for the group, but a major inspiration for hip-hop, which was just coming into its own at the time of ‘Uncle Jam’’s release. The song would become one of the most sampled in hip-hop history, including on tracks by Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre and -- most famously -- De La Soul’s landmark ‘Me, Myself and I.’ ‘Freak of the Week’ also would do well in this regard, and the entire album helped inspire the West Coast hip-hop collective Uncle Jamm’s Army, which would at one point feature a pre-fame Ice-T.
So ‘Uncle Jam Wants You’ helped create the future of music, and did so while also successfully incorporating the past and present. On Side two, ‘Holly Wants to Go to California’ is a piano ballad more appropriate for Tony Bennett -- with the notable exception of the silly lyrics (“Holly would if only Holly could”). The record also found inventive uses for the silky cries of Philippe Wynne, who had just left the Spinners after co-leading the R&B vocal group through its most successful years.
Although ‘Uncle Jam Wants You’ found Funkadelic at the height of their creative and commercial powers, the band wouldn’t exist for much longer. Clinton dissolved the group (as well as Parliament) in the early ’80s because he was (not just) knee deep in legal problems. Members of both groups were incorporated into the P-Funk All Stars, who continue to perform marathon renditions of ‘(Not Just) Knee Deep’ to this day.